US Navy reduction in San Juan recovery reminder of submarine rescue challenges

The news in late December that the US Navy will begin to draw down its operations to assist in the search for the ARA San Juan serves as a salutary reminder that simply having a capability does not equate to a guarantee of success.

At the height of its support in search for the stricken Argentinian submarine, the US Navy stated that its contributions included three specialised aircraft, over 200 SAR personnel, four submersibles, one underwater rescue unit, one surface vessel and the deployment of more than 400 sonobuoys.

International support was also provided from a range of sources, including the UK’s ice patrol vessel, HMS Protector. Still, despite the vast range of scanning, support and rescue assets available, there has been (at the time of writing) little indication that the search will result in success.

The dangers of submarine operations have been chronicled by services and historians for as long as such platforms have been used, and despite the best effort to ensure the safety of crew, when things go wrong under the ocean waves the results are often terrible.

The sheer difficulty in simply operating at often significant depths in such an environment brings a unique set of challenges that would not exist on where there is breathable air. One could say that it is incumbent on services to have some sort of rescue capability, with many navies looking to add this to their repertoires.

In example, the Swedish Navy considers it an obligation to operate a submarine rescue vessel and recently concluded an extensive upgrade of its capability. However, with the service mainly operating in the littorals, it recognises the limitations that any rescue capability has when the depths run into the hundreds of metres.

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Which brings us back to the start of this missive and the loss of the San Juan and crew. Mounting a recovery effort in deeper oceans has to be tempered with the knowledge that it is one matter to find the submarine and another equally difficult to enable a rescue if and when it is found.

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